Republication of the Covenant of Works

It is rather amazing to me to see how worked (!) up people can get over the republication thesis. Is it that people just hate Meredith Kline? Or do they just hate Westminster California? I hear and read overstated cases on both sides. I have read that the republication thesis was the standard position among Reformed theologians in the post-reformation era. This is surely overstated. I have also read that not only is the republication idea heretical, but that no Reformed author ever believed it before Meredith Kline. This is also quite overstated. I have hesitated to write about it, because my own thoughts on the subject were anything but settled. They still aren’t settled. I see helpful insights on both sides (although it must be said that there are an enormous number of individual positions on the nature of the Mosaic covenant). What I am attempting to do in this post is simply to clear away some misapprehensions on both sides.

Definition of republication: that there exists in the Mosaic covenant some sort of republication of the covenant of works. Almost all advocates of the republication thesis I have read agree that the essential nature of the Mosaic covenant is that it is part of the covenant of grace, and that the republication has nothing whatsoever to do with how Old Testament Christians become saved. Most advocates of the republication thesis agree that people were saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone both before and after Christ came. This is not something that most critics of the republication thesis are willing to concede (that republication advocates actually believe this about OT believers). Little, however, is to be gained by caricature, and it is time that the critics saw this. As a matter of fact, there is no Reformed theologian I know of who believes that people in the Mosaic economy obtained eternal salvation by their works in the Covenant of Works.

Another misapprehension among critics is that the Westminster Standards explicitly forbid this notion. It does not. The relevant wording in WCF 7 is as follows: “Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned; yet is it of great use to them, as well as to others…The promises of it, in like manner, show them God’s approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof; although not as due to them as a covenant of works” (section 6). The key phrases here are “under the law” and “to be thereby justified, or condemned.” Republication advocates (at least those claiming to be confessional) do not advocate that OT believers are in any way under the law as a covenant of works to be thereby justified or condemned. Unfortunately, the normally careful Cornel Venema makes a mistake concerning this point in CPJ 9 (2013), p. 161, where he states, “[T]he Confession expressly denies that the law was given through Moses ‘as a covenant of works.'” The correction that is important here is that Venema leaves out the qualifying phrase “to be thereby justified, or condemned.” With regard to the last phrase in section 6, again, most republication advocates will say that the republication does not re-obligate us to the covenant of works. As Fesko says, “[T]he Mosaic covenant is part of the Covenant of Grace but that I maintain that the former republishes, not re-administers, the covenant of works” (CPJ 9, 2013, p. 178). The key words there are “not re-administers.” In section 6 of WCF 7, in other words, the phrase “to be thereby justified, or condemned” controls the whole section. The promises of obedience to the law did not come to OT believers by way of the covenant of works. I feel sure most republication advocates would agree with this.

The fact is that republication of the covenant of works in the Mosaic economy is, in the theology of most of its advocates, simply another way of talking about the pedagogical use of the law.

However, against some republication advocates, I do not believe that the WCF proves the republication thesis, either. Chapter 19 is often referenced in this regard, but chapter 19 does not say that the covenant of works was republished. It says that the moral law that was used in the Adamic covenant as the covenant of works was later given at Mount Sinai. It is that same moral law that is the subject of the sentence in WCF 19.2, not the covenant of works. Republication is therefore not proven or disproven by the Westminster Standards.

Another common misapprehension is that the republication view is quite novel and new. It most certainly is not. There probably are sources that have been “accommodated” to the modern viewpoints. Turretin’s view is, for instance, enormously complex and difficult to parse. However, James Buchanan, John Colquhoun, and the Marrow divines are not difficult to parse at all, and they quite clearly advocate the republication view, with almost all of the distinctives that the modern advocates have. Here is James Buchanan, in his monumental work on justification:

The Law-considered as a national covenant, by which their continued possession of the land of Canaan, and of all their privileges under the Theocracy, was left to depend on their external obedience to it,- might be called a national Covenant of Works, since their temporal welfare was suspended on the condition of their continued adherence to it; but, in that aspect of it, it had no relation to the spiritual salvation of individuals, otherwise than as this might be affected by their retaining, or forfeiting, their outward privileges and means of grace. It may be considered, however, in another light, as a re-exhibition of the original Covenant of Works, for the instruction of individual Jews in the principles of divine truth; for in some such light it is evidently presented in the writings of Paul (Justification, BoT edition, pp. 38-39).

Can anyone seriously doubt that Buchanan was an advocate of the republication thesis?

Here is John Colquhoun, in his work A Treatise On the Law and the Gospel:

The violated covenant of works, as I observed above, was not, and could not be, made or renewed with the Israelites at Sinai; for it was a broken covenant, and besides, it was a covenant between God and man as friends, whereas now man has become the enemy of God. but though it was not renewed with them, yet it was, on that solemn occasion, repeated and displayed to them. It was not proposed to them in order that they might consent, by their own works, to fulfil the condition of it, but it was displayed before them in subservience to the covenant of grace that they might see how impossible it was for them as condemned sinners to perform that perfect obedience which is the immutable condition of life in it…Now the covenant of works was displayed in this tremendous form before the Israelites in order that self-righteous and secure sinners among them might be alarmed, and deterred from expecting justification in the sight of God by the works of the law…Although the Sinaic transaction was a mixed dispensation, yet the covenant of grace and the covenant of works were not blended together in it…The law promulgated from Mount Sinai to the Israelites as the matter of a national covenant between God and them…the promises of that national covenant were promises of temporal good things to the Israelites, both as a body politic and as individuals, and of these in subservience to their enjoyment of religious privileges. The inheritance of the earthly Canaan as typical of the eternal inheritance was given to Abraham by promise (see p. 67 for a further delineation of the national promises that the republished covenant of works would give to an obedient Israel). See pages 55, 57, 61, 62, 64, and 66 of the SDG edition for the quotations.

Lastly, The Marrow of Modern Divinity:

God never made the covenant of works with any man since the fall, either with expectation that he should fulfil it, or to give him life by it…[L]et no man imagine that God published the covenant of works on Mount Sinai, as though he had been mutable, and so changed his determination in that covenant made with Abraham…[I]t was added by way of subserviency and attendance, the better to advance and make effectual the covenant of grace; so that although the same covenant that was made with Adam was renewed on Mount Sinai, yet I say still, it was not for the same purpose. (Christian Heritage edition, pp. 83-84).

On pages 81-83, there are supporting quotations from Polonus (maybe Polanus?), Preston, Pemble, and Walker that advocate a republication of the covenant of works at Sinai. Now, the idea of republication is not the view of all the Reformed fathers, and it would be difficult to say what the majority view was. A lot depends on which elements one includes in one’s definition of republication. There is the element of the covenant of works renewed as pedagogical. Then there is the element of a national covenant (which can be made for different purposes, as the Colquhoun quotation shows; i.e., not all advocates of a republication thesis believed that it was republished for the purposes of giving the land to Israel upon condition of obedience.). In Kline’s view there is the additional element of simple merit, which is certainly not something all republication advocates share.

Can the critics of republication please stop claiming that all these ideas are purely novel, and haven’t been around until Kline came on the scene? That should now be manifestly absurd.

On the other side of the coin, there seems to me to be some exaggeration on the part of republication advocates as to how widespread the view was in the Reformation era and post-Reformation era. Here is where the danger of accommodation comes in (making old authors speak with modern categories). It does not appear to me from my current vantage point that republication was the majority view. A careful reading of Turretin would seem to bear this out (Venema’s careful handling of Turretin seems mostly on target, although Fesko does have some legitimate points in response. The whole exchange in CPJ 8-9 is essential reading for this debate).

So here is where I currently am: I advocate a form of republication that is very similar to Colquhoun’s. The republication was given to Israel primarily for the purposes of the pedagogical use of the law (though not only for this purpose). Of course, it is helpful to bear in mind that in this pedagogical sense, the covenant of works is always republished throughout the entire Bible. It is always there, sometimes more in the background, sometimes more in the foreground.

There is something unique about the Mosaic economy, however. I believe that there was a national covenant made with Israel, but not for the purposes of giving them the land. That was already promised in the Abrahamic covenant. John Colquhoun’s list of privileges and promises that hinge on the obedience is more in line with what the Scripture says, in my opinion. It is, therefore, a very limited republication view that I espouse. I reject Kline’s view of simple merit, if he means strict merit. No one can merit strictly except Jesus Christ.

Quote of the Week

It may sound ridiculous to blog a post about a quote of the week, when I haven’t blogged much in the last month at all. I have hopefully emerged from the doldrums of the last month. Anyway, here is a great quotation from the Anchor Bible commentary on Jonah, written by Jack Sasson (p. 13):

I hold that commentators serve best when clarifying what lies before them instead of explaining what they imagine to have existed.

I would only add to this: if only some of the other Anchor Bible commentaries had listened or had this same perspective!

Vos on Creation

It is indeed wonderful to have available to us for the first time Geerhardus Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics. Vos is often co-opted (and misinterpreted!) by people who love biblical theology, but hate systematic theology. Unfortunately for them, Vos does not go along with them. It is starting to become better known (now that his Reformed Dogmatics is being published) that Vos taught systematic theology at Calvin Seminary before he went to Princeton to teach biblical theology. Does his Reformed Dogmatics give any ground to those who despise systematic theology in our day? Not an inch.

Vos would also be extremely uncomfortable to those (often the same people!) who want to relegate Genesis 1-2 to the realm of myth. The idea that these chapters are myth is not a new idea. It was around in Vos’s time. Here is what Vos says about the genre of Genesis 1-2:

How many kinds of interpretation are there of Genesis 1 and 2? Mainly three: the allegorical, the mythical and the historical. The first two views, however, are untenable because within the narrative of Scripture the creation narrative is interwoven like a link in the chain of God’s saving acts. God does not make a chain of solid gold, in which the first link is a floral wreath. If the creation history is an allegory, then the narrative concerning the fall and everything further that follows can also be allegory. The writer of the Pentateuch presents his work entirely as history (Reformed Dogmatics, volume 1, p. 161).

Fancy that: the father of Reformed biblical theology (and who was the greatest precisely because of, and not in spite of, his unified encyclopedia) rejecting the mythical interpretation of Genesis! May those who are motivated by the desire to look respectable in the world of academia take note that Vos was not afraid of what others might say, and he feared God rather than men.

My Father’s Article on the Exodus Population Numbers

I think this issue has serious ramifications for the exegesis of the numbers of the Exodus. Many if not most commentators simply assume exaggerated numbers. They have not crunched any numbers. My father shows that exaggeration is surely not necessary in order to understand the census numbers literally in the Exodus and Numbers account. What follows here is an abbreviated summary that my father wrote, and the article itself is available here (see attachment near the bottom).

The purpose of this paper was to demonstrate (with a mathematical model) how the population of the Israelites could have increased during their captivity in Egypt consistent with the specific census numbers noted in the book of Numbers. In particular, it was shown that a family size of 6-8 children throughout the time of captivity could easily account for the census numbers without resorting to metaphorical and/or hyperbolic interpretations of those numbers.

The mathematical model was characterized by the relaxing of any implicit extra Biblical requirement that the number of generations of all lines of all the patriarchs had to be limited to five during the entire time of captivity. The model was designed to include such parameters as the average number of children per family, the rate at which the first born and subsequent male children were killed by the Egyptians, the number of live births per family before and after the Egyptian edict, and a variable associated with multiple births, all of which resulted in a range of the total Israelite population being ~1.4 million to ~1.8 million, with the most likely number being around 1.5 million at the time of the Exodus from Egypt. In all cases, the census numbers in the book of Numbers were forced to be satisfied exactly by the calculational mechanism of the model.

The results showed the following:
1. A typical exponential growth pattern of the Israeli population, similar to that of the population of the United States from 1790 to 1870. This without the unreasonable number of children per family of about 30, as a number of commentators would have us believe would have been necessary. In this case, the model (while being considerably simpler than the actual scenario) was able to account for all the numbers noted in Scripture dealing with the Exodus population. This implies that a more complete and accurate descriptive model would strain neither our understanding of Scripture nor common sense in terms of what the Scriptural numbers mean.
2. That the proportion of first born male children killed would have been considerably greater than that of subsequent male children, thus further illustrating the justice of the passover executing of the firstborn of Egyptian people. The model predicts male baby deaths by the Egyptians to be in the order of hundreds of thousands.

In general, future exegeses of Scriptural passages which contain perplexing numbers should be conducted by including questions about one’s implicit assumptions about such numbers rather than about the actual numbers themselves (In this particular case, for example, an implicit assumption made by many commentators is that the number of generations going from Judah to the Exodus was five for all descendants of Jacob). In this regard, it is hoped that this paper will stimulate further analysis of various numerical information contained in Scripture to help clarify any seeming paradoxes centered around such numbers. The results of such analyses likely may well have sermon applications beyond the details of the specific passages in question. For example, consideration of the abortion statistics in the United States as compared to the the number of deaths of Israelite baby boys suggests that a similar judgment of God upon the United States would not be out of line and that repentance as a nation for the crimes of abortion is urgent.

Reflections on My First SBL Meeting

I just got back yesterday from my first ever attendance at a Society for Biblical Literature (SBL) meeting. The motto for the SBL is “fostering biblical scholarship.” This I think they do very well. Of course, they foster many, many different viewpoints. Most of the participants are Christians, Jews, or secular. The spectrum goes from radical liberal to conservative (though there are very few conservatives). I went there on the recommendation of Iain Duguid, who said that the Ezekiel group was very collegial and encouraging of new scholarship. This I found to be true. All were very welcoming and encouraging. Disagreement never equaled attack there (so there is definitely maturity in this group).

The positive things from the conference: 1. Some very interesting lectures on individual passages. A lecture on the Zebulon prophecy in Genesis 49:13 was fascinating, and quite stimulating. There was also a lecture on the shape of the Psalter that I found largely convincing. Many of the Ezekiel studies were helpful as well, especially one by Casey Strine on the inadequacy of the term “exile,” and one by Madhavi Nevader. Daniel Bodi’s lecture was also very interesting. 2. The Ezekiel group in particular was a very welcoming and talkative group. It was very easy to meet people there and talk. 3. The book sale was remarkable. Many specialist books were available for actually reasonable prices. I got an absolute steal on John Gray’s recent commentary on Job, which is usually over $100 on Amazon, and I got for about $32. 4. The worship service on Sunday morning had an excellent sermon by Mark Strauss. 5. San Diego is gorgeous. There is simply no other way to describe it. I had a view of the marina, the bay, and the downtown from my 24th floor window. 6. The hotel was very comfortable (as it should be for those prices!).

Some negative things: 1. The predominance of lectures were from a very liberal-critical perspective. As a result, many of them were not useful to me, as I disagreed with their starting points. Especially unhelpful were the lectures on source criticism. While it is a valuable exercise indeed to seek to determine which verses quote which other verses, such studies can (and in many cases here, often did) atomize the text to the point of unrecognizability. In particular, I was dismayed to find that many scholars at SBL still hold to the Documentary Hypothesis. Honestly, I had thought that old beast dead and gone. I was hoping for more literary and rhetorical analyses of individual texts. 2. The presidential address was by a thoroughly liberation-critical scholar who spent the entire time talking about current politics and about 10 seconds talking about the Bible. 3. This is not really a negative, but it shows me how far I have to go, but the lectures on Ezekiel presupposed a huge amount of knowledge which I did not have, just beginning my research on the book. Fortunately, if I go next year (and I probably will), I will have a year to get up to speed (or at least further along than I was), and maybe get a copy of the lectures ahead of time.

Overall, the positive things outweighed the negative things, and I think that the Ezekiel group will prove invaluable in my research on Ezekiel.

A Friendly Intro to Biblical Theology, Take Three

(Posted by Paige)

Here is a link to a 30-minute talk that I gave at a Bible study conference this October. It’s another introduction to redemptive history, this time tracing the theme of God’s inclusion of the Gentiles through the Old and New Testaments. I also play around with a connection between the Syrophoenician woman and Paul’s words about the “mystery” of Gentile inclusion in Ephesians 3. It’s on YouTube this time NOT because it’s a video of me speaking, but because I made slides to illustrate the audio. Please listen if you like, and pass the link on to others who might benefit, especially those who are just getting to know the Word.

Soli Deo Gloria!

The Old Testament God

It has become rather commonplace to denigrate the God of the Old Testament (usually assuming from the outset that He is a different God than the God of the New Testament). For instance, Richard Dawkins says about Him the following in a now rather famous quotation from his book The God Delusion:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

I was just reading a book of Ezekiel essays, and a few of those essays say much the same thing, if a bit less rhetorically high-handed.

There are a number of things one could say in answer to these charges. The first thing I want to draw attention to is the most quoted Old Testament verses in the Old Testament. Anyone want to venture a guess as to what that quotation is? That’s right, you guessed it! Exodus 34:6-7, which say this: “And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.” These verses, or parts of them, are quoted in the following places: Numbers 14:18, 2 Chronicles 30:9, Nehemiah 9:17, Psalm 86:15, Psalm 103:8, Psalm 111:4, Psalm 145:8, Joel 2:13, Jonah 4:2, and possibly Micah 7:18. It seems fairly plain, when once these passages are looked up, that there is a significant difference (to understate things rather drastically!) between Dawkins’s understanding of the Old Testament God and the Old Testament’s view of the Old Testament God.

It is important to notice that Dawkins seems to be laboring under the (mis)impression that, if there is a God, He owes His creatures something. The facts concerning the Fall into sin make it rather plain that God owes humanity nothing. The fact that any humans at all get to breathe, live, eat, and procreate is a marvel of grace in and of itself. Anything less than annihilation of the human race (which would have been perfectly just!) is pure grace. What, after all, should the God of the universe do when His creation spits in His face, and tries to take Him off His rightful throne, and usurp His place? Instead of destroying mankind utterly, God not only let them live, but He provided a promise of salvation right in Genesis 3, that there would one day come a seed of the woman which would crush the head of the serpent. This alone ought to answer the questions about the supposed “ethnic cleansing.” A closer look at the passages dealing with the Israelites’ destruction of the Canaanites reveals that God delayed His judgment on those sinful people by many long years, giving them opportunities to repent (“the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full,” for instance, in Genesis 15:16). The wickedness of the people driven out is constantly the reason for judgment. God owes them nothing.

Is God jealous? Yes, but what definition of jealous are we meaning by the term? The Bible says that God’s name is jealous (Exodus 34:14). But we tend to import our human understanding of jealousy into the word, and then refashion God into our own image. God’s jealousy is for our good. He does not want us to worship any other god, for the other “gods” are all false. If we have a relationship with the one true God, then we have the greatest good of all. God does not want to share that relationship with anyone or anything else. It is similar to the proper jealousy of a spouse: a spouse does not want to share that exclusive relationship with anyone else.

Does God hate women? No doubt today’s radical feminists would disagree with me here (as would Dawkins!), but I would have to say no. Woman is clearly represented as a full image-bearer, having the image of God stamped on them, just like men (Genesis 1). Just because they are not heads of the marriage does not mean they are hated, any more than a colonel is hated just because he is one rank below general. There is to be love and understanding between a husband and wife (Genesis 2).

Does God hate homosexual people? More and more when I get this answer, I just direct people to Rosaria Butterfield’s book, which says it SO much better than I ever could. Read that book and you will understand what God says about it in His Word, and how Christians, incidentally, should treat the homosexual population. I will only say this: God loved all His children, even while they were yet His enemies.

Is God racist? This is really the most puzzling one of the bunch. All races come from Noah, and all races come from Adam. The main promise of the Old Testament God to Abraham is that God would make him a blessing to all nations. Exactly how is this racist? The fundamental covenantal structure of the Old Testament is that God’s solution to Adam’s messing up the world would include bringing about a salvation that has equal scope.

Dawkins probably got the “infanticidal” from the story of King David and his son, which is the only possible place I could even imagine such a charge coming up. But what does God owe to any human being? Does the potter owe anything to the pot? No, the pot owes everything to the potter. Besides, why should Dawkins object if God simply weeds out someone would probably (under Dawkins’s belief system) be not the fittest? Survival of the fittest targets infants as weaker people. Dawkins is much more akin to infanticidal than God ever thought of being. With God, an infant is a human being, created in God’s image right from conception. With Dawkins, an infant is a piece of tissue until birth. Which view is more infanticidal?

Filicidal? How does Dawkins get that from the Old Testament? Yes, there is the promise of the suffering servant, and yes, Jesus is present in the Old Testament, according to the New Testament. But usually this charge is directed against the New Testament God for “killing His Son.” But the Son laid down His own life. No one took it from Him. It was a sacrifice for sins so that we might have salvation.

Is God capricious? No. He is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness, and yet not allowing the guilty to escape punishment. This one would need to address specific passages that Dawkins had in mind, and since we don’t know those passages, it is fruitless to try to answer his query. From the standpoint of one who believes in the Old Testament God, I find God to be amazingly consistent, and the very farthest thing from arbitrary. I will say this: just because God does not always explain His reason for doing such and such a thing, does not mean that a reason is non-existent. He may have a reason that He does not choose to tell us. This is, in fact, the burden of God’s message to Job in the last part of that book. God is not answerable to human beings. We are answerable to Him.

Some Thoughts on Ezekiel

It is a well-known fact that Ezekiel, in addition to being a prophet, was also a priest. However, it is not usually asserted that Ezekiel also performed some kingly functions as well. For instance, as I look at the infamous passages of 16 and 23, I wonder whether or not those passages (which are surely covenantal lawsuit passages) are meant to portray Ezekiel as exercising some kingly functions in addition to prophetic. Of course, he would be acting as Yahweh’s proxy in the prosecution of the case. But who judges cases in Israel? It is true that the priests were supposed to carry out this function. However, when the kings came along, they took that role for themselves. We find Solomon being the judge in Kings. In exilic Israel, the role of judge would certainly be seen as a kingly function, not so much a prophetic or priestly one.

If this is true (and I haven’t yet done a lot of research on it to lay out the argument), then Ezekiel is a prophet, priest and king. This might help enlighten for us not only the reason why God calls Ezekiel “son of man,” but also why Jesus found the title so very appropriate for Himself. Most people tend to think only of Daniel as being the background material. However, a good case can be made that Ezekiel is more in the background of Jesus’ self-designation than Daniel, or at least that they are equal.

Daniel Block has made a strong case that the phrase in Ezekiel means “mortal human being” (or something very like: I don’t currently have Block’s book in front of me). If so, then a comparison with Daniel’s use of the phrase (which certainly points to deity) yields the following interesting result: Ezekiel’s use of the phrase points out the human side, and Daniel’s use points out the divine.

Put all these thoughts together, and you have a perfectly clear portrait of why Jesus would use the phrase to describe Himself. It is just ambiguous enough not to cause immediate riot because of blasphemy (people would remember Ezekiel’s use of it to describe himself), and yet has enough background meaning to cover not only the offices of Christ, but also His natures. Throw in the additional tidbit that Ezekiel might point to humiliation, and Daniel to exaltation (this is a very tentative point on my part), and you have the perfect set of OT backgrounds for Jesus all wrapped up in the phrase “son of man:” three offices, two states, and two natures.

Backgroundism

It is common now in Old Testament studies for scholars to think that they are studying the Old Testament when they are in fact studying Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) parallels. I was reading a book on an OT book this morning (which will remain anonymous) that had some really excellent essays on the theology of the book, but which also had some essays on the ANE background of the book. There seems to be an assumption that if it was written anywhere near the time of the biblical book, and it was written anywhere near the location of Israel, then it must be relevant to our understanding of that particular book. I believe some serious qualifications of this idea are in order.

First up, the context of ANE documents and the biblical books cannot be assumed to be the same. For one thing, the biblical books are addressed to God’s people, whereas ANE documents are not. Furthermore, the biblical books are inspired by God Himself, whereas the ANE documents are not. The context of the recipients and the method by which the books are made are vastly different. This should give us great pause. I am not saying that background studies of this type are completely irrelevant or useless. However, we need to be quite a bit more cautious about applying our understanding of ANE documents to the OT books.

A second qualification I would offer is this: background documents seem to be much more helpful in understanding the biblical text when there is an apologetic in the OT text against the ANE background texts. As an obvious example, I would point out the apologetic intent of Genesis 1 against the various ANE understandings of how the world was created. Genesis proclaims that God created this world by His speaking it into existence, not by some kind of cosmic battle (like the Enuma Elish claims, for instance). Also, the sun and the moon are not the origin of anything, but were created by God (witness Moses calling them “the greater light” and “the lesser light” instead of their more common but also potentially misunderstood nouns; shemesh is the name of an ANE god of the sun).

Thirdly, it is really irritating to me to read stuff on the ANE background of the OT that never draws any conclusions about why their study is relevant to our understanding of the OT texts in question. They often simply point out a parallel without saying how that parallel actually affects our exegesis of the text. Sometimes, the scholar seems to be saying “Well, I’ve read all the relevant ANE texts, so therefore my understanding of the OT book must be correct.” Even worse is when the ANE background text is used in preference to the OT book’s own literary context in order to change, diminish, or twist the biblical text.

Two Interesting Comments From Jewish Scholars

I was reading along in my Exodus commentaries on the last part of chapter 32 (the incident of the golden calf). The Levites are ordered to bring God’s judgment on the rest of the Israelites, and they kill 3,000 people that day, which is half of one percent of just the males. I have wondered why it is that so few died. Surely just about the entire nation had gone astray. Now, there was a plague that took more people, as the end of the chapter tells us. However, we are not told how many people died in that plague. The stress of the passage seems to be the smallness of the number of people who died. A lot of people have the wrong idea about the 3,000, thinking that it is such a huge number of people. However, we should be thinking of that number as incredibly small, given the offense to God that the idolatry represented, not to mention the derision of the nations to which Israel’s sin made them subject (verse 25). The entire people deserved to perish.

Enter in this startling comment by a Jew (Umberto Cassuto), on page 421 of his commentary: “It is better that a few Israelites lose their lives rather than that the entire people should perish.” Anyone who knows the New Testament at all will recognize the startling similarity this comment has with Caiaphas’ remarks about Jesus’ death. There is no way to tell in the context whether this similarity was intentional on Cassuto’s part or not. This brings us to Moses’ request, which is basically that he be a substitute for the people, a request that the Lord denies. Another Jewish commentator (Nahmanides) notes the similarity of this passage with the ideas present in Isaiah 53, particularly verse 5: “But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.” They seem very close to the truth, don’t they? The difference between Moses and Jesus (and the reason why God refuses Moses’ request, according to Ryken’s commentary) is that Moses was sinful, whereas Jesus was not.

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